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Antigua: A Lasting, Inner Peace

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I planned my 40th birthday for months. I picked Antigua because I had an Aveda spa certificate to redeem. The trip turned out to be a beautiful, solo adventure the last week of November. Before I left, I researched the history of the island, its political climate, and read its newspaper, the Antiguan Observer. The island was first inhabited by settlers arriving from Venezuela and Colombia, then Spanish in the 16th century, followed by British, who raised sugar cane for two centuries until Great Britain outlawed slavery in the 1800s. The country of Antigua and Barbuda has been autonomous for 35 years, but reflects the cultural milieu that created it.

I am not sure what I expected in turning 40. I remember how we taunted my parents as kids when they were “over the hill,” but I do not share that sentiment now. I do not feel old. In April, I began working out with a personal trainer and since January, lost over forty pounds and 4 dress sizes. My first gift to myself was to be in the best physical shape of my life. As my trainer says, everyone gets old, but you do not have to feel old. So I packed my bags and set out for an adventure on a Caribbean island to explore nature, people, and most of all, myself.

I flew to Antigua on a Friday afternoon. Just before landing, I spotted a vibrant rainbow in the clouds. This rainbow was very long and practically opaque. The gentleman sitting next to me, who was going to Antigua to marry the woman sitting next to him, said it was a good sign.

img_7047We arrived at immigration and customs. I had nothing to declare so went for my car. Budget was out of SUV’s, but I reserved one, so they lent me from another company (Dollar). A father-son team own both Budget and Dollar. Manley, an employee, issued my temporary driver’s license and brought me an SUV. When I returned the car, Manley said I was a straightforward and honest person. I wasn’t sure if he was commenting because he had endured bad experiences with others. My endeavor when I travel out of the country is to represent the United States with integrity.

Arriving at the car I finally began to relax. I unpacked the map and directions to Tranquility Farm. I found this place using Air B’N’B. Several reviews raving about its exquisite set up had me convinced to stay there. There was no GPS available so it was a throw back to the nineties map system. I found the radio station I read about, 91.9FM. It played a continuous mix of hip hop, reggae, soca, and other Caribbean and pop music. The format was deejays beat mixing with few interruptions. I had been listening to an early nineties hip-hop station on Pandora while packing, so with a deep gratitude I acknowledged the coincidence and enjoyed it.

Driving to the Farm I got lost, but it turned to be a happy accident, as I needed the direction to find my way on the island later. I arrived at my abode greeting my host, an English woman named Louise Sandiford, who has made Antigua and Barbuda her home for over 30 years. She runs a film production company, Caribbean Crews, which has offices all around the Caribbean. Louise is a film colleague. I hope we find a project that allows us to work with her.

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My place was a short walk from the drive. It was an eco-cabin (the “cottage”) that collects rainwater in thousand gallon tanks, runs on solar power and petrol, and boasts an open-air kitchen and shower. I fell in love online with the concept but in person I immersed myself in this man-made wonder. It is truly a marvelous place and I highly recommend you try it.

The first time I drove from the main road to the cottage, through the woodland rainforest, the adrenaline pumping through my veins could stun a horse. I laughed and screamed nonstop, gripping the steering wheel as if the car would fall to pieces. I was in a four by four SUV, but even then the drive was shocking. I took videos which you can watch one here. Eventually, I trusted my skill level more and really enjoyed driving up and down this tree-lined path.

After settling in, I inspected the kitchen, and prepared my dinner. Louise had generously left me provisions to get by. I encountered a tough, yellow sphere about the size of my palm. I rinsed it and bit in. Was I surprised to find a passion fruit! The flavor was delightful. I sucked up the delicious juice, pulp, and seeds. I sautéed some island eggplant and squash, which are smaller than I find in Georgia, adding red sauce and pouring over pasta. I enjoyed sliced batard, butter, and aged, white cheddar cheese. Louise also gave me some sesame peanut crackers from Waitrose. There is an abundance of British foods available on the island.

img_7104After dinner, I tried the open air shower. As I stood in the semi-enclosed space while steaming hot water shot out of the shower head, tiny lights cast an ember revealing thousands of burning stars overhead. The ceiling of stars was the cherry on top. If you’ve never taken a hot shower at night, outside, under a massive assembly of stars while being serenaded by hundreds of frogs, then I suggest you add that to your bucket list. It is an incredible sensory experience.

Once clean, settled in, and fed, I drifted into a deep sleep. I normally sleep about 3 hours at any one time. My first night in Tranquility Farm, I slept at least 6 or 7 hours without waking. The place certainly lives up to its name. The sun rises at 5:30 am, but because my time zone is 1 hour back, it was really 4:30 am. The rising sun was at eye level with my head. As it crested the treetops, donkeys & roosters began to sing in the distance. It was impossible not to wake.

Over the weekdays I developed a routine. I awoke and went to the loo. On day four I found a Cuban frog, which after consulting with Louise out of concern for its safety, I flushed. I could not grab him out as he had scuttled out of reach. He was sucked out the same way he came, legs flying and all. After the loo, I put the kettle on slow burn, and the espresso percolated. I made the bed, charged up my phone (thankfully, outlets were North American), opened up the shutters, and screened in door, to let a breeze pass through the bedroom, and put on a long flowing, diaphanous dress. The material felt good against my skin and when the breezes hit as they did often high in the woodlands, I honestly felt like a woodland rainforest princess.

img_7255I prepared breakfast first for the birds, bullfinches, yellow quits, and chickens, which stopped by after day three (word must have spread of my luxurious breakfasts), and consisted of bread crumbs, crackers, and a taste of brown sugar. I cooked mine next, which consisted of an egg from Louise’s roost, a slice of batard with butter, yogurt, juice, espresso, and Muesli. It was a larger breakfast than I am accustomed to and indulgence. After eating, I did the washing, discarded the water onto plants, and prepared for the day. Ready to depart, I closed the shutters, door, and side panel.

img_7260I returned home sometimes with shopping, unpacked my knapsack, put on flops or no shoes, disrobed and walked around while taking a small snack. Usually that was the peanut sesame crackers, or a slice of cheese and batard. I hit the shower, which felt good after a day in the eighty degree heat, and cooked my dinner. Each night was some variation on pasta, with sautéed vegetables and legumes. The exception was Tuesday, when I made arugula salad with anchovies and capers. After eating, I did the washing up, discarded the water onto the plants, shut the doors and shutters for the night.

That was a lot of detail but did you notice what was missing? Checking email, and working. I did use communications to relay videos or the daily adventure to my friends and family on social media, but that was it. Save for my birthday, during which I received a number of sweet and thoughtful messages. It really made me feel good hearing from my loved ones.

Daily Adventures

One thing I absolutely loved in Antigua was driving on the left. Each day I knew generally where I would venture to in the island, but that was it. I made no reservations except for the zip line canopy tour, which I reserved one day before. Saturday was at English Harbor; Sunday, St. John; Monday, Jolly Harbor; Tuesday, Devil’s Bridge; and Wednesday, Sugar Ridge.

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fullsizerender-2My first adventure took me to English Harbor. After driving through town, I walked around the marina, settling into Cloggy’s, a bar which was showing the rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand. I was seated at a corner table overlooking the harbor. It was the perfect way to start the day because of the gorgeous view. In December, yachts fill the harbor for an annual show. I devoured prawns in garlic and chili oil, a wahoo steak in butter sauce, and locally made goat cheese, finishing with a ginger and lime sorbet.

After lunch, I drove to Nelson’s Dockyard. Lord Horatio Nelson was an infamous English sailor who enforced the Navigation Acts after American Independence, which inspired resentment between the locals and Lord Nelson. Locals were accustomed to trading with Americans, but not on Lord Nelson’s watch. If Americans wanted independence he was happy to give it to them. The compound is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, which limits land development. I bought hand made jewelry made of desiccated tree seeds from local merchant women. I wandered around a bit, enjoyed a coconut custard pie from the bakery, and took more photos.

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In that moment, I learned three lessons. One, the workday starts early and ends at 3-4:00p.m. I had hoped to hire a water taxi to take me to geological formation, Hercules Pillars, but Maddix, the driver, had departed for the day. Two, I cannot pull cash from an ATM. I had to call my bank and inform them I was in Antigua. Sadly, the single thing I forgot to do in my short layover in Miami was to call my bank. I chose a hot, Cuban sandwich over the bank call.

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After the dockyard, I visited another national park: Blockhouse and Shirley Heights. In each of these vantage points I took live video. Lesson three was the insane cost of data. Two, one-minute videos cost more than $100 in data. Needless to say after that I only took live video if there was a WiFi connection! Thankfully, I was able to share a video on my birthday.

jim-walker_1At Shirley Heights is the Lookout Trail, which is about a mile and ends at the beach. I set out for the trail, when I encountered Jim Walker, who was walking up. I stopped and asked him a few questions about the trail, and we ended up in a long conversation. Jim is the Director of Outdoor Trust, an organization that builds walkways in Commonwealth territories. He took my photo holding the placard. We chatted at length about politics and the island. It was a fascinating discussion and I am deeply grateful for the insights he shared with me. Prince Harry arrived Sunday to commemorate the walkway and there was an opening ceremony in English Harbor. It was an honor to meet Jim; you can follow him on Twitter.

Sunday, I drove to St. John. Upon arriving into town, my stomach sank as most of the shops appeared shut. I began to imagine new plans for the day. I kept driving and eventually made it close to the water where there was a market and tourists from a Princess cruise ship milling about. Delighted to see activity, I parked the car and started shopping. My first destination was an art shop with original, signed works hanging floor to ceiling. I loved them all. If I ever acquire property in this place I know where to go for wall decor. I next hit a bazaar, where I snapped up a vividly colored hobo bag that reminded me of our rainbow. I snagged another necklace, a sticker, a vintage map, and a patch for my collections. There were many stands guarded by island women calling me sweetie and asking me to take a look at their wares. Each stand was quite similar. I searched for a sack like the one I had and found none to compare.

img_7126I wandered into more high-end shops and picked up my favorite French perfume with lavender and bergamot undertones. I next found Goldsmitty, the only source for Antiguanite, a geographically descriptive name (that is trademarked) for petrified coral that is cut, polished, and set into gold or silver. My pendant is set in sterling, shaped like a teardrop, and has the deep purple of dusk. I requested custom made earrings to complete my set. I stopped by an art store and picked up a necklace and calabash, a hand painted gourd, with a fish inside.

img_7117Satisfied I had done sufficient damage, I entered the Bee Hive, a centrally located bar with plenty of people watching, and began conversing with a group of English sailors aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker, Wave Knight. They were a delight to engage in conversation. They and others were fascinated by our election results. Other topics included Brexit. Prince Harry slept on their ship while he visited Antigua.

Monday was beach day. I heard that the west coast of Antigua is the best coast. I started with Turner’s, a secluded, pristine beach with powerful waves. I walked along the beach, picked seashells, which I left for the cottage, then took a dive. The waves were so intense my bikini would not stay on. I must have lost the top a few times. Satisfied with my swim in the sea, I returned to my chair and sat in the sun to even out my runner’s tan. Time stood still.

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After spending the morning at Turner’s Beach, I drove slightly north to Jolly Harbor, known for its resort beaches. I enjoyed lunch at Castaways, which consisted of fish fritters and a Vietnamese sandwich. I enjoyed an evening swim, sat in a beach chair, and took a 16-minute video of the sunset, which you can watch here. Later I chatted with an English couple, Liz and Jim, a general physician, whose daughter is my age. They were staying at Sugar Ridge.

img_7197Tuesday was a surprise. I had not expected to zip line, but was always curious about it. The Farm sits at the top of Fig Tree Drive, a steep and curvy scenic road, which leads west. After driving past it a couple times, I decided to sign up for the full course, which ended with a bonus, obstacle course. Focusing on not falling while suspended by two ropes attaching my harness to a tree, balancing on wires, nets, and boards, preceded by two hours of cruising among the treetops in the woodland rainforest is a total body work out. Our group went categorically through each stop, so at the end I knew my line mates well. Mine were a friendly, tattooed English couple, Spicer and Sarah.

After zip lining, I drove to Devil’s Bridge, a geological formation at the northeast corner of Antigua. Its unique shape acts as a strong barrier to waves, which crash to huge heights. Walking down to it for a shot, I was instantly soaked head to toe. After drying off, and praying my phone would survive, I snapped a few more, noticing a tiny crab eating another.

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On the way home, I stopped at Willoughby Bay for photos, and Bailey’s, a corner market, for groceries and souvenirs. During my stay, I stopped here twice. Shopping here was a local’s experience. I picked up fresh baked bread for the birds, and enough to prepare a 4-course meal for Louise and myself the next night. Louise had been a kind and generous host. She gave me total privacy, a pre-paid cell phone that I could make local calls, and advice on the island. Because of Louise, I assimilated more into the local culture, which felt wonderful.

img_7264The morning of my birthday, I awoke and fed the birds a feast, then made my birthday breakfast, an omelet of jerk sausages in addition to the farm egg and aged cheddar cheese. I enjoyed a delicious passion fruit. I then drove to the Aveda spa at Sugar Ridge, where I immersed myself in an aromatherapy massage of petit grain, orange, and geranium, body treatment, and facial. The process took about 3 hours. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated; my skin glowed.

fullsizerender-8I stopped at O.J.’s in Crab Hill for a late lunch before driving home to make dinner for two. I savored steamed mussels and half a lobster. To aid in my digestion, I took a stroll on the beach at sunset, which resulted in the most epic photograph of my trip. Thanks to WiFi, I also shot a live video for my friends. I felt as though the Universe was wishing me Happy Birthday in its own, special way with these epic skies and expressed a deep gratitude in that moment.

Returning to Tranquility Farm, I spent my last evening in Antigua in great company. I prepared dinner for Louise and me and we spent hours in delightful conversation. Louise makes the world more interesting and fun. Life in Antigua is breathtaking: wildlife, people, and natural landscapes. I never felt unsafe or alone; I was surrounded by love. I spent a lot of quality time alone, too, reflecting, recharging, and resting. It is possible to have the tourist experience in Antigua. I prefer to live like a local and be immersed in nature. I got what I came for and more: new friends, new insights, and an inner peace that I can return to always.

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For this and more photos, please see the photo gallery.